Reflections on Unity and Righteousness

Unity. Righteousness. As much as these words are an invitation to Godly action, they can also be, in my view at least, fraught with difficulty. Let me explain.

It has been my experience that the word ‘unity,’ is too often used to sow divisiveness. Throughout history, the call for ‘unity’ has sometimes been used to push out those who do not agree with a prevailing sentiment.  Too often, the language of ‘unity’ is not a challenge to reach out to others, but rather an excuse to sink inward. It is sometimes synonymous with ‘see things like me,’ ‘believe like me,’ or ‘act like me,’ leaving those who see, believe, and act differently branded as unfaithful and pushed to the edges.  I have occasionally seen the call for unity as the very thing which breeds division.

And it has been my experience that the word ‘righteousness’ is too often used to reinforce the status quo. ‘Righteousness’—maybe especially when used by those who benefit most from a contemporaneous cultural arrangement—has sometimes been transformed to become a description of social power, not a statement about spiritual power. Those who support and outwardly align with cultural expectations are labeled as ‘righteous’ and those who do not are dismissed as wicked, impure, unworthy.  Too often I have witnessed the word ‘righteousness’ used to justify the unfair treatment of others and as a basis to relish in the downfall of those we dislike or who are not like us.

Of course, this is not always the case. It certainly happens that discussions of unity and righteousness can help to create lasting bonds. I wish it happened like that all the time. But—even for those who profess Christ—the language of ‘unity’ and ‘righteousness’ has, at times, torn apart individuals, families, communities, and nations. Human history shows that God’s children too often devour themselves using the language of ‘unity’ and ‘righteousness.’

And yet, it still remains true, and is clear from the scriptures, that unity and righteousness are central components of a Christian lifestyle. In fact, we find calls for both throughout the LDS standard works, and often in close proximity to each other (for instance, Mosiah 18:21, Colossians 2:2, Moses 7:18). So, because I worry that I might fall into the trap I just described and, rather than inspiring interconnectedness, I might inadvertently sow division and discord, for this brief essay, I do not want to write about unity and righteousness. Instead, I simply want to show what unity and righteousness look like in practice by drawing on examples from Jesus’s life.

First, Unity. Throughout his life, Jesus fostered unity. Jesus regularly interacted with those who, for a variety of reasons, were on the margins of society. For instance, Jesus socialized to the Jews that worked as tax collectors for the Romans occupiers; he ate dinner with them (Matthew 9:10-17, Mark 2:15-22, Luke 5:29-39), he visited the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and even called a tax collector, Matthew, to be one of his apostles (Matthew 9:9–13, Mark 2:13–17, Luke 5:27–28).  Jesus also engaged personally with the sick (e.g., Matthew 12:15, Matthew 14:14, Luke 4:40, Mark 3:10) the demon possessed (Matthew 8:28–9:1; Mark 5:1–21; Luke 8:26–40), and the ritually impure (Matthew 8:1–4, Mark 1:40–45, Luke 5:12–16 and also Matthew 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48). More than just visiting the lost sheep, Jesus actions were about extending boundaries of the fold to ensure all of his sheep were included.

As another example, when his friend Lazarus died, Jesus still took time to mourn with those who mourned (Romans 12:15, Mosiah 18:9).  In in a touching gesture of unity, Jesus—the one who knew Lazarus’s death was not the end, the one who would shortly bring Lazarus back to life, and who would eventually open the doors of resurrection—still, in a show of solidarity, carved out a brief moment in his eternal ministry to weep with those who grieved the loss of someone they loved.  This was unity on the smallest, and yet grandest, scale (John 11:1-43).

And then there is the great intercessory prayer—the prayer delivered immediately before Jesus was taken into custody by the Romans. In this prayer, after affirming that he had done the will of his father, Jesus’s deepest desire was that we would be “one” (John 17:20-21) and be united together, and with Jesus, and with God.  It is striking that, at a time when Jesus was facing down his death and when could have prayed for anything, that unity was the focus of his attention and the prayer of his heart.

Second, Righteousness. Throughout his life, Jesus forced those around him to reconsider taken-for-granted ideas about righteousness. Knowing that alignment with a specific brand of Sabbath day observance was a key litmus test for the ‘righteousness culture’ of his day, Jesus asked the religious experts whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Unsure of what to say, they held their tongue, meanwhile Jesus proceeded to heal a man suffering from disease and in so doing broke through narrow ideas about ‘righteous’ Sabbath worship (Luke 14:1-4). Similarly, Jesus chastised the religious leaders of his day for being overly concerned with things like how well they prayed in public and the value of tithes they paid at the temple, while they were simultaneously omitting what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

Or, when presented with the woman taken in adultery, Jesus turned the tide of accusation with the simple phrase, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” and, when all her accusers left, he then uttered one of the most marvelous phrases in all scripture: “neither do I condemn thee, go thy way and sin no more” (John 8:1-11).  Jesus made clear that righteousness is more concerned with helping people moving forward, than it is about stoning those who sin differently than we do.

In fact, at least twice Jesus was asked a version of the question of “what is righteousness?” One time, a young rich man came to Jesus and after affirming that he had followed all of the commandments from his youth was still compelled to ask: “what lack I yet?” (as an aside, I find it interesting that this young man, who was apparently living what would be considered a ‘righteous life,’ somehow felt that even in keeping all of the commandments he was missing something) (Matthew 19:16-20). And once Jesus was asked by a religious expert of the day “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). Though potentially not as sincere as the young rich man’s question, the question was essentially the same.

Jesus’s answers to the rich young man and to the religious expert are phrased slightly differently. Yet in these separate answers he delivered the same core message. To the rich young man he said in effect, “give all you have to the help the people around you and come follow me” (Matthew 19:21). To the religious expert Jesus said, quoting the Law of Moses, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-40). In both situations Jesus reminds us that righteous discipleship is ultimately and primarily an expression of love. 

Even these examples constitute a woefully incomplete list of the ways Jesus demonstrated unity and righteousness. Yet, this brief list is sufficient to makes clear that unity and righteousness are an inevitable outcome when one is guided by love. Time and time again, it seems, the core of Jesus’s message comes down to that one word: love. [1] I am embarrassingly aware of my need to do better when it comes to developing this attribute.  However, I also believe that Jesus is willing to help me every step of the way.


[1] It is interesting to note the consistency that Jesus’s focus on love has with the “principles of righteousness” discussed in Doctrine and Covenants 121 which include long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, and kindness (D&C121: 36, 41).

Comments

  1. Observer says:

    “It is sometimes synonymous with ‘see things like me,’ ‘believe like me,’ or ‘act like me,’ leaving those who see, believe, and act differently branded as unfaithful and pushed to the edges. I have occasionally seen the call for unity as the very thing which breeds division.”

    This is because unity is a command that applies to other people, not me. They are supposed to unite with me. I’m already doing my part by setting an example for them. It’s not my fault if they can’t get with the program. (Did I get enough sarcasm in there?)

    Unity cannot exist without charity. Ultimately, the command is for us to be one with Christ, and if we are all one with Christ, we will be one with each other as well. Since none of us will be perfect at that, we all have to show an increase in charity towards those around us who might be doing their (imperfect) best to follow Christ’s example the best they know how.

  2. I believe it is either our blindness and arrogance that cause us to equate our desires with God’s will or our desire to manipulate others into meeting our needs, that poison the call to unity. It is unity with God, which only comes about through humility, that we are really seeking, not unity with other flawed humans. Unity with God required even Jesus to accept his father’s will and conform his life to it. Only a society where all are willing to submit to righteous laws can be truly unified. And only those who can hear the voice of the Spirit know when they hear God’s voice.
    Yes, the call to unity is easily corrupted by those who put their own agenda first. The ancient Nephites managed to destroy their Zion society after achieving unity. And replace it first with separate belongings, then with separate tribes, then with unlimited war. But at the end they were once again unified, this time as a civilization being destroyed and armies being slaughtered. I guess they entered Hell together. One wonders if they mocked those who warned them of the coming cataclysm.

  3. stephenchardy says:

    I, too, have felt confused (if that is the right term) when at General Conference, our leaders ask for unity, or when they invite people back into the fold. I have always felt that what they are really asking for is for repentance. Sort of the along the terms of: “Please come back. We are ready to love you. Just submit to our believes, practices, actions, mindset, and behaviors and then we will all be one, just as God intends.” Obviously not an actual quote.

    But such submission is difficult, if not impossible, for many. To be completely in, to be temple-worthy, is it required to believe that the Book of Mormon comes from golden plates, discovered by a young man known for treasure hunting, and conveniently taken back by an angel so that they can’t be examined? I continue to have such faith but I understand that it may be a bridge too far for many. Do we have to reject family members who aren’t strictly straight? You may say that the answer is an emphatic “no!” but it isn’t hard to find quotes from our not-so-distant past that suggest that we must do that. A member of the First Presidency has recently encouraged parents to not allow their gay children sleep at their home if they bring their partner. Unity? How? Righteousness? Whose?

    I believe that we must find unity and must agree on righteousness. But I believe that we need to define those terms in an expansive rather than a restrictive way. It would allow for doubters, for the LGBTQ, for others. It would emphasize the most basic tenets. It would mainly be around love. Christ-like love.

    I have long worshiped alongside my brothers and sisters whom I believe almost never vote like I do, for example. Even though I disagree with them on things like military spending, like public assistance, about educational priorities, I still serve with them. I still serve at their sides. I think there is enough, despite all of this, for unity.

  4. It’s hard to be unified, to be as one, when there are so many structural rules and policies that divide us. When checklist worthiness interviews not only keep people out of attending family weddings, but also keep people away from summer camps, youth conferences, and dances, how can we say we are one? It’s too easy to hide behind the excuse that those are “God’s rules”. Dictators, tyrants, terrorists, and abusers usually scapegoat God as their justification for discrimination. High demand religions, with the high pressure of obedience and conformity, will never produce unity.

  5. “Men see the grandeur of the idea of unity in the means, God in the end. That is why the idea of grandeur leads us into a thousand forms of pettiness. To force all men to march in step toward a single goal—that is a human idea. To introduce endless variety into actions but to combine those actions in such a way that all lead via a thousand diverse paths to the accomplishment of a grand design—that is a divine idea.

    The human idea of unity is almost always sterile; God’s idea is immensely fertile. Men believe that they attest to their grandeur when they simplify the means; but it is God’s purpose that is simple, while his means vary endlessly.”

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. by Arthur

    Shakespeare’s Hamlet says it this way, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. Human beings, and unfortunately, Latter day saints who tout themselves as truth seekers, have instead relegated themselves, without even knowing it, to “Proposition defenders”. We are no better than the corrupt version of science that Terryl Givens calls “Scientism”. Our seeking instinct has been obstructed by our loyalty to truth claims, instead of our commitment to God. And why wouldn’t it be? Why would one seek when what they know seems to be all there is?

    Tocqueville beautifully illustrates what Dave Brisbin expresses in his book “The Fifth Way”, he writes, “The quality of the means we use ALWAYS matches the ends we produce”. As I have read the New Testament this year, Jesus seems to constantly ask us to exchange ends for means. In the Lord’s prayer, he says “On Earth as it is in Heaven”. He empty’s himself of his divinity, bringing heaven to earth, so earth can be brought to heaven. It seems clear to me that, Heaven is not some arbitrary reward in the hereafter reserved for the ultra-pious and exact law keepers, but rather, the construction of the types of people and relationships that constitute heaven. In short, the gospel is not a way to be seen as acceptable to God, it is “The Way” to see as he sees, without bias, pretense, preference or prejudice.

    The word “God” in the original Aramaic is the word “Alaha”, which means unity, oneness, connectedness. But what is it that connects us? As Tocqueville summarizes, man has made the fatal error of attempting to “unify” around ideas, thought forms, correct thinking, moral codes, etc. What unites us is our “humanity”, our “divinity”, it’s right in front of us, it’s always been there, we are just blind to it.

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